The Weed-free Lawn Trend
Our modern society has conditioned us to maintain a well-manicured, weed-free lawn to be held in high regard by our neighbors, friends, and even city officials. Some neighborhoods have homeowner associations that will fine you for allowing your lawn to grow taller than a certain height or for having plants other than grass in your yard.
We haven’t always felt that way. Did you know that in the 1500s, well-to-do English landowners took pride in their rainbow-colored lawns of wildflowers where grass was considered the unwelcomed weed? The arduous task fell upon the shoulders of young lads who were hired to keep the upper-class grounds grass-free.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that perceptions changed. The Garden Clubs of America, the U.S. Golf Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a campaign to convince Americans they needed to carpet their yards in a sea of green. With the advent of lawnmowers, everyone could have immaculate lawns like the rich and famous.
Lawns now cover roughly 40.5 million acres or two percent of the land in the U.S., making them the largest crop cultivated in this country. But do they serve any environmental purpose? Unfortunately, no. Maintaining the perfect lawn requires constant attention, uses a massive amount of water, and provides little or no beneficial habitat to any living creatures with whom we share this earth.
Mindsets are slowly changing now. The trend is gradually transitioning from maintaining a manicured lawn to allowing it to be more natural. Homeowners are experimenting with landscaping their yards with various plants, trees, and shrubs that offer a diverse selection of food and shelter for beneficial insects and other critters. They are also discovering that replacing the boring weed-free green monoculture benefits them as well by saving time and money – as in no more raking, mowing, fertilizing, weeding, watering, or using those terrible, awful pesticides.
It’s wonderful that people are learning not to use pesticides and artificial fertilizers and are being encouraged to provide native plants for pollinators. But what about some of the other trends? Are they beneficial?
No Mow May Trend
No Mow May began in Britain and made its way to the U.S. by way of Appleton, WI, in 2019. Since then, the idea of not mowing your lawn for a specific period of time at the beginning of spring has spread like wildfire across America.
The theory behind No Mow May states that by not cutting grass, native flowers tucked away in the lawn are allowed to mature and bloom. These early blooming small flowers provide nectar and pollen for hungry insects, namely bees, emerging from their winter shelters.
Of course, letting the grass grow in May doesn’t work everywhere. There are many temperate zones across the country, meaning spring doesn’t necessarily arrive in May. It may come earlier or later. So this method has to be adapted to the specific area.
It sounds like a nice thing to do for the bugs, but does it really work?
In most cases, not really.
No Mow May is more effective in metropolitan areas than in rural. In some cities, very little native flora exists. Therefore, any bees looking for nourishment must rely on lawn weeds which generally consist of clover and dandelions. That’s fine in Britain and Europe where these native plants offer the nutrients insects need. Here in the States, though, that’s not the case. Not all yard weeds, especially the non-native varieties, are beneficial for pollinators.
According to the Journal of Economic Entomology, a 1987 study found that honeybees fed only dandelion pollen demonstrated poor brood-rearing capabilities due to the dandelion’s inability to provide the necessary amino acids the honeybees need.
Plus, non-natives plants can and will spread to natural areas, out-competing native species. Added to that, a lawn previously treated with herbicides will only grow tall grass and introduced weeds, and will retain chemicals that can be harmful or fatal to bees and other insects.
Overall, in the U.S, the No Mow May trend means well but is not a realistic answer to feeding hungry insects in early spring. It may make folks feel good about helping the bees. However, one month of not cutting grass ain’t going to hack it! Bugs need food and shelter the rest of the year too.
On the Flipside...
That leads us to another trend. Instead of only one month, how about not cutting grass as often?
Proponents of the modified No Mow May concept refer to studies that indicate less cutting equals more flowering plants, which attracts not only a larger number of bees, butterflies, beetles and other pollinators, but also more species of these invertebrates as well. For example, in Kentucky, 26 species of bees have been observed feeding on clover and dandelions. Another study in Massachusetts found that varying the frequency of mowing (weekly, bi-weekly, every three weeks) influenced bee abundance. Waiting three weeks between cutting doubled the number of flowers in the lawn and attracted up to 111 bee species.
I find those numbers encouraging, yet the same results will not be consistently repeated in all regions of the country. I also have to ask - are the 26 species of bees feeding on clover and dandelions getting the nutrients they need or is it more like junk food?
The best thing for everyone to do is simple. Instead of depending on sporadic self-seeding flowers and weeds, plant early-blooming native flowers, trees, and shrubs that are guaranteed to give the indigenous bugs the nectar and pollen they need.
Heather Holm suggests these early blooming natives:
- Red Maple – Acer rubrum
- Pasque Flower – Anemone patens
- Virginia Waterleaf – Hydrophyllum Virginian
- Violet – Viola
- Willow – Salix
- Bloodroot – Sanguinaria Canadensis
- Wild Plum – Prunus Americana
- Golden Alexander – Zizia aurea
- Wild Geranium – Geranium maculatum
The whole idea is to understand the relationship of all life on Earth and provide a wide variety of flora that will ensure the health of habitats and ecosystems. In other words - provide biodiversity. Maintaining nature's balance is paramount to supporting the dwindling populations of pollinators, native bees, birds, and more.
You can do this by:
- reducing lawn size
- removing invasives
- providing nesting sites
- eliminating the use of pesticides and fertilizers
- supplementing your remaining lawn with native perennials, trees, and shrubs.
Don’t forget the rest of the growing season.
Try the 3-3-3 method each year to expand your native habitat. Increase diversity by adding three spring, three summer, and three autumn indigenous flowers, shrubs, or trees to your landscape so pollinators have a consistent food source.
Make this world a better place ----- one yard at a time.